Originally published February 16 2016.
“No one who went through the campaigns of Sicily and Italy could be any stranger to fear, but as my footsteps reverberated on the marble floor and echoed from the vaulted ceiling of the long corridor leading to the Benchers’ chamber, I could feel my heartbeats pounding in my ears. The apprehension I felt was a new sensation for within that room ahead sat a handful of men who had the power to make an irrevocable decision on the whole course of my life. At least when I faced the Germans I was equally equipped with weapons and so had a fifty-fifty lever with them! The contest ahead of me was totally unequal.”
Rankin’s Law: Recollections of a Radical, 1972, p.70-71
I keep my copy of Harry’s autobiography on my coffee table. I think it’s a fascinating read – not just because of the subject matter, but because Harry writes so evocatively. You may read the above passage thinking he’s describing his time in the army, serving overseas during WW2. Nope. The scene he is describing is one central to Harry’s mythology: his battle against the Law Society Benchers in 1950.
At the time, Harry was in the process of completing his law studies at UBC. While at school, he joined the Communist University Club, serving briefly as its treasurer. In his book, Harry describes his interest in progressive politics following his return from the war, and how the club (independent and unaffiliated with the national party) brought in a host of compelling and accomplished speakers. Little did Harry know this decision would jeopardize his ability to practice law, and follow him throughout the rest of his career.
“I, Harry Rankin, do solemnly swear that I am not a communist or a member of any association holding communist views that if called to the Bar I can take the Barristers’ Oath without reservations of any kind and that I have no intention of following any communist association in the future. That I do not and will not advocate nor am I a member of any organization that advocates the overthrow of democratic government by force of violence or other unconstitutional means.”
When I first began my investigations into Harry’s story years ago, this anecdote about Harry renouncing any ties to communism before being called to the bar was so often repeated to me that it took on a mythic quality. David, with his progressive views, versus a panel of conservative and unyielding Goliaths. To read Harry’s own words from his book (including the prepared statement above, which he was compelled to sign) – further compounds the hyperbole.
It wasn’t until I read all of Harry’s book that I really understood this story within the context of the time. And I don’t just mean the rampant McCarthyism, and the Rosenberg trial, and everything we learned about in History 12 (thanks, Ms. Toms!). I mean Gordon Martin, a man of a similar position to Harry whose story proved to be a cautionary tale.
Harry tells Martin’s story in his book, in a chapter titled A Private Inquisition. Martin, a few years ahead of Harry at UBC law, is called before the Benchers in 1948 before being admitted to the Bar. Harry describes Martin, a married man and air force veteran, as quiet yet steadfast in his Marxist beliefs. To the Benchers, however, Martin did not pass the requirement of being a “fit and proper person” in order to belong to the legal profession. After his rejection, Martin took his case to the BC Court of Appeals, where Justice J.A. Robertson confirmed the Benchers’ decision, because “Communists’ protestations of loyalty are not to be accepted, and that they consider their first obligation to the Communist Party.” Because of Martin’s political beliefs, he could not be trusted, and would not be allowed to practice law. Harry goes on to write that after the Benchers’ rejection, Martin moved his family to Nanaimo and became a television repairman. Not a broken man, though; one of “steely resolve and integrity.”
Gordon Martin’s story helps us understand what was at stake for Harry when he signed that declaration rejecting his communist beliefs, and what the red baiting throughout his career really meant, and why the RCMP surveilled him for thirty years even once he’d become an elected official, and why I still can’t really get a clear picture of what his relationship with the national Communist Party was. Had just a few elements in his story been different, there may not have been a Harry Rankin.